On Wednesday 16 June, the Royal Society of Literature presented their annual Mrs Dalloway Day, on line. The day concluded with a discussion on the short stories of Virginia Woolf and Katherine Mansfield, with particular reference to their personal relationship or as it was described, their critical friendship.
I am sure there are many readers out there who cannot ‘get on’ with Woolf’s work at all, but I am not one of them. I’ve always been fascinated by the way she wrote, with frequent use of free indirect speech. Mrs Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself… And then, thought Clarissa Dalloway, what a morning – fresh as if issued to children on a beach… Thus taking her reader from the domestic home out into a very public beach at the seaside.In 26 words. Both Woolf and Mansfield have work published as short stories. This description applies most certainly to the short writings of Mansfield but Woolf’s short pieces are, surely, just that, pieces.
The introduction to the book Selected Short Stories tells the reader that Woolf shared TS Eliot’s wish to present the boredom, the horror and the reality of the everyday world rather than to construct a fictional one…And nothing happens in the stories. Let’s look at the opening and the closing sentences of her piece titled In the Orchard.
Miranda slept in the orchard lying in a long chair beneath the apple tree. Those first five words are repeated twice creating a three stanza structure. The closing lines are: The wind changing, one bunch of apples was tossed so high that it blotted out two cows in the meadow. (‘Oh I shall be late for tea! cried Miranda), and the apples hung straight across the wall again.
The story is less than 3 pages long – it’s a piece.
My copy of Bliss and Other Stories has no introduction but a look at the contents page confirms these are all stories of the expected length – except the first Prelude which runs to almost 50 pages. My favourite story is The Little Governess which is the story of a journey made by an inexperienced lady traveller. Oh, dear, how she wished that it wasn’t night time. She’d much rather have travelled by day, much much rather. A perfect example of how to start a short story. Straight into the fears of the narrator. Immediately she is in a threatening situation. She is unsettled.The storydoes not end well. She is abandoned. It is a sad conclusion to her adventure.
There! That’s one difference between the work of Woolf and Mansfield. The climax of Mansfield’s endings creates an emotional response in the reader; Woolf’s does not. After the death of Katherine Mansfield (1888–1923), Virginia Woolf (1882–1941) described being haunted by her in dreams. Yet Woolf also admitted that the one writer she was envious of was Mansfield. Their particular inflection of modernism is interpreted through their shared experience of transition and habitation. However long or short the work of both Mansfield and Woolf is, brings the reader into moments of disorienting suspension. The familiar is made strange, and the domestic made menacing.